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We Came Back for Meals: Older People’s Perspectives on Play

posted this in Childhood, Free Play, Playing Out on 24/05/2016

Playing out sessions aim to give today’s children freedom and independence close to their homes. How are they viewed by older residents? And what are their memories of playing out in the streets when they grew up? Three Bristol residents in their sixties and seventies share their thoughts and memories……

Pat and Gavin Davies live in a north Bristol street where playing out happens once a month. Retired social workers, Pat and Gavin heard about playing out when a neighbour talked to them about the idea, and they immediately gave their support.Patandgavindavies2

“We thought it was a really important thing for the street, and important for us to get involved,” says Pat. “We steward regularly and are happy to do that; one of us goes at each end of the street and pairs up with another resident. We’ve met neighbours we wouldn’t otherwise have met and that’s been a bonus. It’s been so pleasurable to see the children running around and having fun.”

“We’ve never had any problems with drivers being unhappy, but our background as social workers means we’re both quite good at diffusing difficult situations. When I hear about adults complaining about children playing and the noise they make I think that’s horrible, really sad, and I think those adults have short memories because they played as a child. I think the sound of children playing is a lovely noise. Does anyone object to the noise of cars in the same way?”

Gavin paints an evocative picture of freedom growing up in 1950’s Cardiff.D7KM1X

“I lived on a quiet street with hardly any traffic and we could play hopscotch in the middle of the road. Kids these days have so much entertainment in their homes but we didn’t, so we had to go outside for that. From about age eight I was allowed to go out to play independently and I’d go and play with friends. We’d walk to Splott Park. It was a fair old way, about one and half miles from home.

“One of our big adventures was to get through to the back entrance of Cardiff Royal Infirmary and play with the porters’ equipment, the hospital trolleys and other things we found. And we’d dare each other to walk right through the hospital and come out of the main entrance bold as brass without getting caught by the porters!”

Pat remembers a similar freedom from her childhood growing up in suburban London.

“Your mum would send you out to play until tea time. Were our parents neglectful as they didn’t know exactly where we were? I don’t think so because we were taught responsibility. I had a watch from an early age and knew the rules. And all the neighbours knew who you were so you couldn’t get away with much! In streets in those days, people would chat over the fence or even bring chairs out to talk but now cars are present all the time.”

Pat sees playing out sessions as an opportunity for retired people.

“People might be surprised to be asked to help steward, but pleased,” she says. “And it might be up to people like us to get other retired neighbours involved.”Ben-Barker-Portrait

For Ben Barker too, playing out now presents a stark contrast to his experiences of childhood freedom. Born in 1939 in London, Ben lives in south Bristol where he is active in the local community partnership and has supported playing out since its early days.

Ben remembers playing on bomb sites in north London which he says were “more an adventure playground to us”.Children playing on a bombsite in London in 1954

“It was an austere period and we didn’t have stuff like bikes or television. We’d go out and walk to places like Hornsey swimming baths, but there were no ‘play dates’ in the way children have these days – things which seem to be organised by the parents. We just got on with it and had some control over our lives. Of course we played in the street. Where else would you play?” he asks.

“We were aware of risk and you were expected to take care. We were supposed to come back for meals but I just came back when I was hungry or it rained.”

“But the physical and cultural circumstances allowed that, and today of course the difference is that playing out is special and unusual. It’s an artificial substitute for what I used to do. But it’s so good for children to socialise and take some command for their physical activity and their space,” he says.

“But doing things in the streets where people live is also about reducing social isolation for older people; about feeling safe and supported. The whole process of building relations is not just about children.¬†Social structures have changed and car use and traffic is so much more dominating. I don’t see it changing in my lifetime,” concludes Ben.¬†“But I can see people becoming more challenging about rules around street use and doing things that make much more sense.”

Do share your own memories of playing out when you were young. You can leave a comment here or join our Facebook group.

Hertfordshire resident and playing out ‘area activator’ Rob Schafer has led a project in Tring, his home town, gathering local residents’ play memories from their childhoods from the 1930’s to today. Playing Outside: Past, Present & Future is a book of photographs and memories from the project. Do email if you would like a copy.

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